Persuasive Web: Where Psychology Meets Conversion

DAY 25: When Time Is a Factor, How Much Copy Is Too Much Copy?

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 25, 2009

Mechanical_StopwatchI’ve been a web writer for quite a few years now, and I’ve developed a list of pet peeves along the way. It’s a short list of pet peeves, thankfully — yes, I’m one of those annoying people who loves what she does more with each new day — but it is a list nonetheless. And at the top of that list is this statement, commonly made by marketing managers or executives reviewing a website’s copy:

“There’s too much copy on this site! Let’s just get to the point.”

Balance that bit of opinion-based criticism with this statement we often hear from users in usability studies:

“I need info. Where is it? Why can’t you just tell me what I need to know?!”

Given that we’re sticklers for usability around here, I tend to listen a bit more to the frustrations of our users regarding copy quantity than to management. (Call me crazy! ;)) As a result, I lean more in the direction of writing additional content — and, of course, positioning that content in non-interruptive but easily accessible ways 🙂 — than in the “get to the point” direction. 

But am I right?

Are study user groups right?

Are managers right?

And, hey, you have an opinion on the subject. Are you right?

That really brings us to the obvious, oft-debated question: How much copy is enough copy on a website… and how much is too much?

The answer: Ha ha ha! Were you really expecting an answer here? I mean, how could there be just one answer? We’re dealing with people — so there’s always an exception (or a whole massive group of exceptions). But it would be nice to get closer to an answer… So let’s ask a better question. 

The better question: When my users are on my site and are trying to find a product without wasting their time sorting through content, how much copy is enough copy… and how much is too much? Now that’s a question we (with the help of Chowdhury, Ratneshwar, Mohanty and their lovely recent research) can answer.

Time-Harried Shoppers: Crafting Enough Copy to Help Users Make Decisions as Fast as They’d Like

Not everyone makes decisions the same way under the best of circumstances — nevermind when they’re uber-busy. The truth is that, when consumers need to make decisions quickly, time becomes a hugely influential factor in their choice processes. Chowdhury, Ratneshwar and Mohanty showed us (in 2009) that consumers will even alter their preferences, switch brands or fail to buy products when hurriedness enters into the equation

That’s right: Time is an influencer. Actually, it’s both an influencer and a barrier. (Double-edge swords are fun!) A lack of time can prevent people from making decisions… That said, when considered during your site’s content development, a user’s lack of time can actually work in your favour and help to persuade your users. 

Time is an influencer.

Here’s how time influences the decision-making of the 2 primary groups of consumers, Maximizers and Satisficers.

  • MAXIMIZERS – This group of consumers strives to make the best decisions possible and seek out content to help them make those decisions. Maximizers arebusy-shopper born window shoppers: the more options you present to them, the more time they’ll spend considering those options. When pressured for time, maximizers feel it heavily and may make a rapid decision accordingly,… but they’re more likely to feel regret about those decisions and change their minds later, if given the opportunity to do so. 
  • SATISFICERS – This group of consumers is willing to settle for decisions that are adequate rather than perfect. These folks like to get to the point. When pressured for time, satisficers hold up well, making rapid decisions with little regret; unfortunately, satisficers may be more prone to making the wrong decisions (given that they are happy with “good enough” and may not consider what “good enough” fails to address). 

Picture 3If you’re building a website for satisficers who may be rushed, less copy/content is fine-and-dandy (as are fewer options). Just get to the point — you’ll make satisficers happy enough to make a purchasing decision. (Just hope that they don’t have a maximizer partner at home to point out why their decision was not good enough and force them to return the purchased item to you.)

If you’re building a website for maximizers who may be rushed, you need to be a bit more careful with the amountPicture 1 of copy you choose to put on or cut from your site… not to mention how you organize/design that copy. Maximizers require enough content to make them feel that they can make the best decision because they know all the facts and are 100% informed of their options. …But when they’re busy, maximizers need to find a balance between getting enough content to feel confident and not getting so much content that they feel they won’t become 100% informed (because they don’t have enough time to read everything!), can’t make the best decision and, as a result, may not buy at all. 

Make sense? The primary point I’m getting at, without saying it, is that you have to know if the majority of your site’s visitors are satisficers or maximizers, and you have to write content for them

Example Site: Designed for Satisficers

This website is one of the top-converting sites today and is made, largely, for quick purchases rather than well-researched purchases — not too surprising for flower-ordering/-delivery sites. That is, it’s designed as if it’s made for satisficers first, maximizers second.

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 can still help maximizers (rushed or not). But that’s not what the home page is for. That’s what the rest of the entire site is for. (Pretty smart, if satisficers are the primary visitors to this site.)

Example Site: Designed for Maximizers

Top-converting provides more content to help maximizers find the info they want to find… and purchase it only when they’re actually ready to. (That is, not from the home page.)

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At the end of the day, of course, as you’ve already guessed, building a site for satisficers makes less sense than building a site for maximizers. Why? Because satisficers are happy with “good enough”. It’s the maximizers who give a damn what you’ve got for info. It’s the maximizers you can actually help with your site’s copy. So give ’em what they need… and see how the amount of copy you place can lead to better conversions thanks to better persuasion. 



DAY 23: Why Sex Sells – Romance, Scarcity and Persuasion

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 23, 2009


Influence guru Robert Cialdini and several fellow researchers this month published an article on “Evolution, Emotion and Persuasion” (Journal of Marketing Research) in which they discussed the interplay of evolutionary shaping, fear & romantic arousal and the widely used persuasion heuristic scarcity. Here, very briefly, is what their discussion led to:

  • FEAR – Fear contexts and fear-heavy content can cause normally persuasive scarcity appeals to backfire
  • ROMANCE – Romantic contexts and romance-heavy content can cause scarcity appeals to more effectively persuade

Why does fear cause scarcity appeals to backfire? Because, from an evolutionary perspective, people facing fear have survived by sticking together — not by being conspicuously visible, off doing their own thing and seeking out limited editions. 

And what of the power of romance in increasing the effectiveness of scarcity appeals? Simply, mate attraction equals reproduction, which is a very basic human need — and we become more attractive when we are differentiated from the larger group. That is, it’s good to own a limited edition as that scarce item is one more thing that separates you from the crowd and makes you more attractive to a potential mate.

Moving from Cavemen to Conversions

What can we as online marketers do with Cialdini’s insights into the popular persuasion heuristic that is scarcity? Let’s consider visual design. First, an example of a site that creates fear context — and the banner ads that attempt to persuade users in those spaces. 

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According to Cialdini’s research, ComCast may not achieve the results they might otherwise have simply by virtue of the fear arousal that users felt prior to clicking the banner ad and landing on ComCast’s offer page / lead gen form. That’s because scarcity appeals and fear do not mix well. 

Fear’s not very fun… but romance is! So let’s go there next. Remember, romantic arousal — including photos of attractive people or even stories about romantic desire — can cause a person to think less about their decisions and be more readily persuaded by the widely used persuasion technique that is scarcity. 

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Missed Opportunities? Swimsuit, Lingerie and Other Women’s Apparel Sites

Given that attractive members of the opposite sex have been shown to make scarcity messages more persuasive, it’s surprising that sites targeted to women shoppers are so filled with photos of women. …And beautiful (which is not necessarily likeable) women at that! From a persuasion perspective, it seems safer to assume that women shoppers would be more effectively influenced with images of men-and-women…. So why do sites for women — like & (a scarcity-heavy site) — feature images of women only? Simply because women wear the clothes? Really? 

And why does not have a single man on their entire website? Is it because, after all, the site really is for men? Surprising. 


DAY 21: A Flawed Persuasion Principle?

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 22, 2009


What happens when you look for a flaw… but find nothing? The athlete who must be on steroids… but isn’t. The 24-year-old millionaire who must be a drug dealer… but actually runs a successful start-up. The beautiful actress who you hope has veneers & extensions, gets Botox by IV, is brainless & shallow… but who’s actually naturally gorgeous, a PhD and a math tutor for inner-city kids on the weekends. 

There’s power in looking for flaws and being proven wrong. It’s persuasive. Research into consumer decision-making behavior even proves it. 

The Experiment: The Power of Being Proven Wrong

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What if someone sat you down in front of the aspirin message to the right (from Bayer’s Aspirin website) and said, “Tell us what you think about this product”? And what if they then sat your friend down and said, “Tell us all your negative thoughts about this product”? 

Drs. Derek D. Rucker and Richard E. Petty of Ohio State University conducted that experiment almost exactly. The widely held assumption in consumer research, prior to their research, was that people can’t be persuaded once they’ve started to argue against the claims or messaged benefits of a product. …So when Rucker and Petty asked one group to focus on their negative thoughts about aspirin, they might’ve expected that the effect of all that negativity would be “anti-persuasion”. 

The actual result? People who aggressively considered drawbacks to aspirin but found none concluded that they had truly few negative thoughts about the product… which actually increased their certainty in choosing aspirin. Those who sat and objectively processed the aspirin message — that is, those who were asked just to ‘think’ about aspirin — were less certain about choosing aspirin. Why? Because they had not attempted to find fault and come up empty-handed. They hadn’t engaged in battle and lost. They hadn’t been proven wrong. 

What Happens If They Counter-Argue… And Are Proven Right?

Umm… don’t let that happen. 😉 As researchers Tormala and Petty found, people who successfully counter-argue a message ended up feeling even stronger negative feelings towards a product… because they’d been proven right. Their negative attitudes stuck and even further solidified. Good luck breaking down that wall! (Well, it can be done… but why go there if you don’t have to?)

Examples of Companies Who Benefit from This “Flawed” Persuasion Principle

Some companies use guarantees, inviting consumers to investigate their products for flaws and return the product if there are, in fact, flaws in it. The truth is that any company that has a truly great product can confidently encourage people to try to find their flaws. When no such flaws are revealed, the effect is a more positive attitude towards the company and/or product.

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The moral of the story? As Rucker and Petty put it:

Aggressively considering drawbacks to a product, but finding none, allows individuals to conclude they have truly few negative thoughts, which increases attitude certainty. Individuals who objectively process a message have not aggressively considered the faults, and therefore are not as certain.

Are you ready to put yourself out there? Is your product so good that, when put to the test, consumers would talk themselves into using your product rather than talking themselves out of it? 

It’s a big challenge, putting yourself and your brand out there to be picked apart — but we’ve seen that, if you’re as good as you claim to be, there’s no reason people should choose the competition. So the real question is whether you’re as good as you claim to be. And no number of persuasion principles — even expertly applied — can help you if you aren’t. (Not in the long run, at least. 🙂 ) 


DAY 17: Is Cause Marketing Persuasive?

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 17, 2009

tide_base_loadsofhope_big_1_You’ve heard of cause marketing. That’s when businesses support/sponsor a cause publicly in order to, ultimately, line their pockets with the proceeds of goodwill. Think Dawn cleaning up birds affected by oil spills. Pampers’s tetanus shots for expecting moms. The Lexus/Scholastic Eco Challenge for students. Haagen Dazs’s support for bees/pollinators. And the oh-so-popular Sears sponsorship of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. 

At their most basic, cause marketing campaigns are product placements. The Extreme Makeover designers go running through Sears in search of appliances for the new home, with a big ol’ “Sears” sign overhead. Product placement.

Haagen Dazs Supports Honeybees

Haagen Dazs Supports Honeybees

So, here’s the question: Are product placements — as overt attempts to entrench a brand in one’s memory and, hence, as overt marketing — actually persuasive in cause marketing campaigns?

If you read this popular article from AdAge, you’d say that, yes, they are. But let’s dig a bit deeper than that, shall we? On Day 17 of the 30 Days of Persuasion, that’s exactly what we’ll do. 

When Consumers Reward Companies for Self-Serving Selflessness
Consumer decision-making researchers Drs. Becker-Olsen and Cudmore argued that consumers will support a company that engages in cause marketing (i.e., sponsoring philanthropic efforts) when these 3 things are true:

  1. The consumer believes the effort makes sense or fits with the company’s products/services offerings
  2. The consumer believes the act is from the heart (motivated by pro-social ideals)
  3. The consumer perceives the act as proactive rather than reactive

So Sears engaging in cause marketing on Extreme Makeover should enhance consumer attitudes towards Sears because it meets those 3 heuristics. That is, it makes sense for Sears to donate appliances; they consistently sponsor the TV program, which feels like true corporate motivation; and their efforts were not motivated by negative PR. Even further, Sears restrains its product placements, so viewers aren’t beaten over the head with their commercial intents.

Surprise, surprise: Even consumers think it’s okay for companies to engage in cause marketing… under the right conditions. 

…And When They Don’t (and Your Efforts Backfire)
You’re motoring along a road in Kentucky, and you pass over the black-filled remnant of what once was a pothole. You glance down, and what do you see but a big ol’ KFC logo and “Re-freshed by KFC” stamped in white paint on it?  

KFC Kindly Fills Potholes - And Makes Sure You Know to Thank Them

KFC Kindly Fills Potholes - And Makes Sure You Know to Thank Them

Now tell me, do you feel oh-so-glad that KFC was kind enough to take a few of their billions of dollars and fill in the potholes you thought your tax dollars were going towards? Or do you maybe feel a touch choked that not only are taxes crazy but now you’ve gotta deal with KFC’s thinly veiled attempt to get you off the road and into their drive-thru… where the chicken is barely chicken, nevermind “fresh”. 

KFC, you already knew consumers were hugely skeptical about being marketed to, but you had to go and slap your logo all over their streets. 

What KFC was trying to do here was to engage in cause marketing (not a bad thing) and enhance their brand in consumers’ memories (not a bad thing). But here’s where they went wrong, insofar as persuasion is concerned: they revealed their hidden commercial intent. How? By spray-painting every single pothole with their logo and even incorporating some sort of new tagline around their product as “fresh”. (Wha….?)

It’d be like every person on Extreme Makeover wearing a Sears t-shirt. And the entire program being named “Sears Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”.

According to Drs. Bhatnagar and Aksoy, companies like KFC can expect consumer backlash to heavy-handed cause marketing in the form of a negative impact on:  

  • The trust consumers have in that brand
  • The trust consumers have in the claims that brand makes
  • The trust consumers have in the media used

Companies Who Are Doing Cause Marketing Persuasively Online
The web’s a persuasive tool, so why not take these efforts online? These websites designed around cause marketing initiatives meet Becker-Olsen and Cudmore’s 3 criteria of fit, motivation and timeliness/proactive-approach. 

Dove Campaign for Real Beauty Fits the Product and the Brand Value Proposition: To Be Real (99.44% Pure!)

Dove Campaign for Real Beauty Fits the Product and the Brand Value Proposition: To Be Real (99.44% Pure!)


Accor Hotel Group Tucks Their Great Microsite (for the Accor Foundation) Into a Corner of Their Corporate Site... Rather Than Parading Their Philanthropy

Accor Hotel Group Tucks Their Great Microsite (for the Accor Foundation) Into a Corner of Their Corporate Site... Rather Than Parading Their Philanthropy


Virgin's Music Movement Fits Well With Their Brand and, As One of Nearly 10 Movements in Virgin Unite, Shows All the Right Motivations

Virgin's Music Movement Fits Well With Their Brand and, As One of Nearly 10 Movements in Virgin Unite, Shows All the Right Motivations

So, at the End of the Day, Is Cause Marketing Persuasive?
Well, 92% of US adults have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause the consumer believes in, and 87% of consumers say they’d switch brands if quality & price were the same but the other brand supported a good cause. So we can say that, when done well, cause marketing can be extremely effective. According to Nielsen Media Research, Extreme Makeover has helped Sears achieve better recognition and positive feelings among consumers:

August 28, 2007, New York, NY —  The Sears Department Store placement on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” had the top product placement score on broadcast network television in June 2007, The Nielsen Company reported today in a new metric based on both brand recognition and positive feeling.  According to Nielsen’s product placement measurement service, 58.1% of the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” audience not only were able to recognize the presence of the Sears store brand during the program but also came away with a positive feeling for the brand as a result of that exposure. 

Time will tell how people actually respond to KFC’s initiative. 🙂 So far, it looks like the mayors of a lot of the towns KFC is approaching re: their city’s potholes are not jumping at the opportunity……..


DAY 15: Delegation! When Your Users Ask YOU to Tell Them What to Buy

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 15, 2009

Overwhelmed by options and clueless as to how to decide? Delegate your decisions to people who know.

When you don't have the knowledge you need to make the right decision, it's time to delegate!

Really effective persuasion is based on tapping in to the decision-making processes of consumers to address their barriers to purchasing and break those barriers down by highlighting/applying their motivators for purchasing.

Principles of persuasion are largely based on how to help consumers make the decision you want them to make. But “purchase decision delegation” is all about consumers stepping back and letting others make their decisions for them. It’s like subcontracting your decisions to someone better able to make them. 

Why would a consumer want to let someone else make up their minds? Most often, it’s because:

  • They’re lacking the product knowledge they need to make an accurate decision
  • They’re too busy to be bothered
  • They don’t really care and just want to get the purchase over with

In such situations, consumers may be open to using an online recommender agent to show them their options and suggest the best matched product for their needs. (Let’s call this an “online agent.”) Think of any time you’ve asked a coworker to recommend a real estate agent, for example — if you ended up going with that agent, you effectively delegated your decision. Doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch anymore, does it?

What Purchasing Decisions Might Consumers Delegate to Your Online Agent?
Before we go too far, let’s be clear: Delegating decisions doesn’t always mean delegating the final purchasing decision. Consumers aren’t going to necessarily give you their credit card numbers and tell you to buy whatever you think they need (except maybe for personal stylists and interior decorators). No, instead we can ask consumers to allow us to help them make decisions at one of these 3 (of the 5) purchasing stages:

  1. Information Search – They need your help to figure out what characteristics they should be looking for in the product/service they purchase
  2. Evaluation of Alternatives – They need your help to narrow down their choice sets (or products in product categories)
  3. Purchase Decision – They need your help to make the final decision

Regardless of the stage at which your customers may wish/need to delegate their decision to your online agent, the fact is that they will have at least 2 major barriers to overcome in order to subcontract that decision to you… The good news is that there are at least 4 major motivators that you can highlight to help break down those barriers and open them up to delegating to your online agent. This chart describes. 

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The desire for control in making a decision about what to buy cannot be underestimated. It might be impossible for your online agent to erode the control barrier for some users — but it is not always impossible, or, if it were, this blog post and the research that supports it (e.g., Crane; Klein & Ford, 2003; Ratchford, Lee & Talukdar, 2004) would never have happened. 🙂

For you to make the most of this information and its opportunities, it may be valuable to consider first the elements that litter the path between your users and their use of your online agent:

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This path diagram shows that your potential customer is separated from subcontracting their decision to you by the barriers and the motivators, where the barriers need to be lessened and the motivators highlighted. (With regards to the motivators, it’s worth noting that accountability, authority and customization all lead to an increased sense of trustworthiness of your site and its online recommender agent.) Here are some ideas around how you can highlight motivators:

  • Accountability – On the agent landing page, message that you have a 100% 30-day money-back guarantee for any purchase and that, for purchases made from the online agent, consumers get an additional 30-day grace period for returns. Or offer a ‘feedback’ tool that lets users return post-purchase and tell others if they liked the product or if they should use the online agent. 
  • Authority – Give the credentials of the people behind your automated online agent or on your chat tool. 
  • Customization – Create a truly robust online agent that takes the detailed info of the consumer and uses that info to generate a custom recommendation. 
  • Trustworthiness – Huge topic! 🙂 Click here to read about building trust on your website

Examples of E-commerce Sites with Online Agents

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(BTW, is begging to be linked to NetFlix or even Why o why, WhatToRent, don’t you turn your cool tool into an opportunity for your users to actually purchase or rent the movies you recommend?)

Where Are We Seeing Online Agents Today?
The above examples are for wine, mortgages and movie rentals, respectively. There are also a schwack of travel, insurance, stock/trading and wardrobe recommenders out there. These online agents are pretty obvious solutions, given how align closely with at least one of the “reasons to delegate” we noted at the start of this post:

  • They’re lacking the product knowledge they need to make an accurate decision = WINE, MORTGAGES
  • They’re too busy to be bothered = MOVIES
  • They don’t really care and just want to get the purchase over with

But where are the software recommenders? Where are the contractor recommenders? And what about options in the “I don’t care — just get it over with” area? I’m seeing a future of online agents that recommend birthday cards for coworkers, new wiper blades for your car….. 🙂 


DAY 5: Can You Sell More by Offering Less? Exercises in Scarcity Marketing

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 6, 2009


One day sale!

Limited time offer!

These deals won’t last!

We’ve seen messages like these our entire lives. There is a well-known persuasion principle at work here and marketers have been using it to sell product and services forever. It’s the principle of scarcity.

What is scarcity?

According to Wikipedia, scarcity is “the problem of infinite human needs and wants, in a world of finite resources.” What a great definition!

How does it persuade?

In a nutshell: You want now what you may not be able to get in the future.

We find things that are scarce desirable. If something is difficult to obtain, then getting it demonstrates to ourselves and others that we are in control of our environment. If a person or company comes along and threatens to take away that which we desire or somehow limit its supply, it triggers our primal need to remain in control – and not be controlled.


If you can control supply, then you have a significant lever on demand – and you can artificially create scarcity. The De Beers Company buys huge quantities of diamonds on the world market, simply to keep them scarce so that their high price is maintained. OPEC works in a similar way.

A study conducted by Zhang, Ying, Fishbach, and Ayelet in 2005 supports this, concluding that “individuals evaluate losses more extremely than gains of similar size”.

water shortageThink about the gasoline shortage in the early 70s. Or consider what happens with dwindling water supplies during a drought or emergency. Gas and water are considered essential to survival (well, sadly, gas is considered essential in North America) so people line up at the mere mention of a shortage and can actually fuel a downward spiral. But the same principle holds true for ordinary, everyday items as well as for luxury items.

For example… people flock to see a heavily censored film. Music that is banned on radio stations typically shoots up the charts. ‘Bad boys’ are often desirable to young women if for no other reason than prior admonishment from trying-to-do-right parents; rebellion is definitely connected to scarcity (i.e., trying to have what you are told you cannot or should not have).

rubiks cubeThe same holds true for banned substances. When we realize that we do not have something, we desire it. But when someone or some agency bans that ‘something’, it only makes things worse. Interestingly, when ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was first published it was banned. Apparently many black market copies were sold and it made the author, D.H. Lawrence, famous.

And in the more recent past, do you remember the insanity surrounding these popular – and heavily advertised – Christmas gifts? The Pet Rock (1975), Star Wars toys (1978), Rubik’s Cube (1982), Cabbage Patch Dolls (1983), Tamagotchi (1996), Furby (1998) and the Nintendo Wii (2006) are all examples of scarcity being applied during the holiday season: People were actually injured in the stampedes to obtain commercial items in limited supply.

Now if something is not scarce, then it is not desired or valued as much. Praise from a teacher who seldom praises is valued more than praise from a teacher who is liberal with his or her praise. And if everything is scarce, then scarcity itself lacks value and people become too used to it. Studies of retail sales have shown that if more than about 30% of goods have ‘sale’ sticker on them, the effectiveness of this method decreases. How persuaded are you by furniture stores that advertise weekly blowout sales?

Scarcity on the Web

How are companies applying the scarcity principle on the Web?

Going once, going twice, sold! ebayeBay is an entire business built on this principle, combining limited supply and a highest bidder pricing model to create a massive marketplace fuelled by scarcity – which ends up being highly persuasive (and addictive!). The study by Zhang, Ying, Fishbach, and Ayelet refers to this principle (as it applies to buyers and sellers) as the “endowment effect,” which is defined as “the gap between the price buyers are willing to pay in order to acquire an object and the price that sellers would demand in order to part with this object.”

Gone in a flash! Scarcity is also applied as a persuasion technique by online apparel and fashion retailers — using a concept called “flash sales” — where goods are offered at sizable discounts for a limited period. Take a look at the following examples from and




Deals are flying out the door! We’re also seeing the scarcity principle applied by travel aggregators and airline sites. What could be more persuasive than learning there are only 2 seats available at the sale price?



Here are some ideas and things to remember when you’re trying to generate the same persuasive effect on your own site:

  • Strictly limit the amount of product you’re selling in a promotion. Display the quantity right up front in the headline where every visitor can see it — and strictly adhere to your statement.
  • Create time-sensitive deadlines that actually expire. Set a date for the promotion to end and offer a special discount on the product if purchased before that time — and don’t be tempted to extend the closing date. Credibility is the key to generating scarcity.
  • Try providing special ‘insider access’ passes or memberships to the first X number of respondents — or if your visitors order before a deadline. You increase value and evoke quicker responses by limiting the number of memberships available.
  • Offer forward-dated discount vouchers for future product releases. For example, “Buy our amazing software this week at $199 and you’ll automatically receive our next release with 12 additional features at just $99.”
  • Display dramatic ‘visual countdowns’ to increase the sense of scarcity and amplify your visitors’ urge to purchase.

Hopefully this sprinkling of scarcity mechanisms will inspire you to employ them in your own headlines and throughout your Web copy. If you state simply and clearly that a genuinely scarce commodity is available to a hungry target market (who you know want what you have!), and you can make it disappear before their eyes, people won’t stop reading. In the end, if you’ve done it correctly, they’ll place the order.


DAY 3: Social Proof: Part II (Enjoy Your Stay)

Posted in Social Proof by persuasiveweb on June 3, 2009

paradise hotel

In yesterday’s post about the principle of persuasion known as social proof (and how social proof relates to Internet user review systems), I left off with an illustration of how consumer reviews are implemented on two popular book sites, an

While both sites offer user reviews, Amazon clearly demonstrates a deeper understanding of how social proof and user reviews can compel people to purchase its products. Many of Chen’s research findings that I cited in yesterday’s post align perfectly with the design of Amazon’s popular product review system.

That was books. What about higher ticket priced items such as hotel rooms? How are travel aggregator sites making use of social proof?

There are many more attributes of a hotel than a book – and there is also generally more at stake when it comes to making a vacation booking than buying a vacation book. As a result, we see a lot of rich detail on hotel site user review systems.

Let’s take a look at three popular hotel aggregator sites:

  3. incorporates ‘guest reviews’ directly into its product pages and provides some nice features for drilling into what’s important to travelers when searching for a hotel property. Ratings for service, hotel condition, and cleanliness give visitors an additional layer of detail than a single overall rating. Reviews can be filtered by the type of trip you plan to take – which makes sense given that leisure travelers will likely have a very different set of expectations than business travelers!

hotels positions its reviews as a ‘new’ feature. While perhaps late to the reviews game, the site designers have done their homework when it comes to allowing visitors to drill down into the information that matters most to them. A simple two-column layout and a surprisingly high number of reviews across the listed properties makes it easy for hotel searchers to get the information they need and feel confident in the overall assessments.

travelocity was one of the first travel aggregators to offer user reviews. However, the site has not evolved at a pace one might expect on the Web, and a lack of in-depth review features generally means more work for site visitors – and the advertisements are a distraction from the primary goal of the page, which is to persuade users to book via great user-generated content.


I’ve scored the 3 sites across 7 different dimensions to get a sense of their overall effectiveness and ability to persuade. I used a 10-point scale, giving equal weight to each persuasive element (this is subjective but it is my blog). The absence of a particular feature doesn’t necessarily translate into a ‘0’, since there may be a proxy for that missing element. For example, the ability to sort reviews by rating could be called a proxy for ‘Hotel Popularity’, but it’s not as elegant a solution. Photos, however, are an all-or-nothing element (i.e., it does mean ‘0’s for not having them).

So how’d they do? There is no runaway winner because no site provides all of the persuasive elements — and they each tend to excel in different areas. edges out the other 2 sites mainly because of its user-submitted photo feature, which I would argue is a highly persuasive element. Travelocity misses with the absence of helpfulness ratings and lacks depth in the areas of filtering and individual attribute ratings.

hotel site rankings

With their persuasive properties grounded in social psychology and plenty of research like Chen’s to support their continued use, consumer review systems are a unique value add on the Web. People have come to rely on the opinions of others for online and offline purchase decisions, and I suspect that without them we would feel lost. But that is an unlikely scenario… so long as people continue to take the time to provide their opinion.


DAY 2: Tricks Online Book-Sellers and Vacation Sites Use to Persuade You

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion, Social Proof by persuasiveweb on June 2, 2009

herd mentality

Read any good books lately?

When was the last time you came across a new or used book Web site or hotel aggregator site that didn’t offer consumer reviews? Would you go back if that was the case? Probably not, since user reviews are now the price of entry for any Web site that sells a large number of similar products or services.

It used to be that sites like and TripAdvisor were lauded for their user review systems. Epinions built an entire business around consumer-driven product reviews. Although the initial buzz has turned to quiet praise, why have so many sites continued to adopt user reviews? Likely because users began to expect – and then demand – user reviews.

But did you ever stop to think about what drove this expectation and why user reviews are so powerful?

User reviews are a form of social proof — a well understood persuasion principle — that is defined by Wikipedia as “a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.

And further, “Social influence in general can lead to conformity of large groups of individuals in either correct or mistaken choices, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as herd behavior.

Do we really follow the crowd (sometimes to our own detriment) when making important decisions about where to spend our money?

It would seem so.

Yi-Fen Chen conducted a study in 2007 titled, “Herd behavior in purchasing books online” that examined recommendation systems and their impact on consumer behavior.

Here are some of her findings:

“The rapid growth of e-commerce has created product overload in situations where consumers have become unable to effectively choose products they are exposed to”

“The opportunity for consumers to choose among growing numbers of products has increased the burden of information processing before product selection”

So the Web has created too many choices for us (no revelation) – choices that may have always existed but never been fully exposed. Students of persuasion know that with an increasing number of choices, decisions become more difficult to make. And that’s a core benefit of user reviews: they are intended to make decisions easier for consumers, and the prevalence and popularity of reviews would appear to indicate that this is a real outcome.

But why do reviews make our decisions easier? Chen explains:

“’When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other (Hoffer, 1955)”

“Informational cascades occur when individuals follow the previous behavior of others and disregard their own information”

I interpret this to mean that we (i.e., humans) don’t like to expend too much energy on making decisions. And when you consider just how many decisions we are forced to make in a single day(!), it’s no wonder, really. In fact, it’s this desire to make it through the hundreds of daily decisions and still have the energy to eat, talk, laugh, exercise, and play with our kids that is largely responsible for the study of persuasion – as so many of the persuasive principles we’ll discuss on this blog relate to our moving through life on ‘auto pilot’ – and how understanding this behavior can work for you and your Web business… to compel people to reach for their mouse and make the next click.

Chen also provides insight into specific elements of user reviews that can influence people’s behavior:

“Star ratings of books can influence consumer buying behavior and cause an informational cascade”

“Providing cues for eliciting herd behavior will influence consumers and lead to online herd behavior”

She references the following cues:

  • Star ratings
  • Sales volumes
  • Recommender system recommendations

As consumers come to rely even more on reviews in their complicated purchase decisions, cues such as these are quickly becoming part of what users expect to find on all Web sites. It’s no longer enough to provide a simple star rating. Users want more.

And finally, Chen makes a point of examining the influence that the source of reviews has on our behavior:

“Previous studies have demonstrated that source – expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness – positively influence consumer attitudes towards a brand and purchase behavior”

“Consumers are influenced more by ‘collective intelligence’ than by a small group of experts”

“Consumers clearly prefer to receive guidance from those perceived to be similar to themselves”

Her first point about expert reviews being potentially more influential is countered by the other two excerpts. I interpret them to mean that if a book has 5 expert reviews and 5 consumer reviews, people will lend more weight to the expert source. However, when the number of reviews by end users exceeds the volume of professional write-ups by a reasonable margin, there is power in numbers – and the numbers tip the influence in favor of the laypeople.

Chen’s final point about similarity is also insightful (and relates to another persuasion principle known as likeness), but I don’t see it being put into widespread practice by e-commerce sites. However, ratings and reviews vendor Bazaarvoice does offer the option to profile reviewers to its customer base, probably knowing full well that review readers will assign more credibility to people that appear to be just like them.

So, given Chen’s findings, how are popular book-selling Web sites doing in terms of their use of consumer reviews? Let’s take a peek at the powerhouse of the used book market, Victoria BC-based, and the leader in new book (and everything else) sales, (For anyone who hasn’t read the press release, Amazon acquired in August 2008.) does indeed provide book reviews (in this case for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Crossing”), but only in their most basic form. A review date and ‘smiley rating’ are the only two attributes of each review:

abebooks reviews, parent company of AbeBooks, does things a little differently and offers much more depth in their implementation of reviews. The book-selling behemoth incorporates a number of social proof elements into each set of recommendations in order to compel people to engage [and hopefully purchase]:

amazon reviews

With only a brief scan of its product pages, it’s pretty clear that Amazon understands consumers and what they have come to expect from an e-commerce site. And with an average annual conversion rate north of 15%, the company also has a firm grasp on the principles of persuasion and specifically the power of social proof.

[This post is getting a little long, so in part 2 – coming tomorrow — I’ll examine the implementation and effectiveness of consumer reviews on several hotel aggregator sites.]

And in the sprit of Amazon’s product reviews… was this blog post helpful? 🙂


DAY 1: Introducing the 30 Days of Persuasion (June 2009)

Posted in 30 Days of Persuasion by persuasiveweb on June 2, 2009

After writing countless blogs over the past seven years or so, we’ve finally decided to write one that is expressly dedicated to the topic that excites us most online: persuasion… specifically persuasion in e-commerce environments — primarily the Web but also emails/direct response, banner ads and even PPC ads & SEO metadata.

Thankfully, the Web seems to have made a real transition from the online brochures it used to be (not that long ago!) to sites that are increasingly concerned with users — their information needs, their engagement wants.

But there’s plenty of room to take e-commerce to the next level. Moving to persuasion. But remaining concerned with usability (yes, you’ll find some stuff on this blog about usability, too).

But let’s get right down to it. We’re kicking off this blog with what we’re oh-so-creatively calling the 30 Days of Persuasion. Here are some topics you can expect to read about on this very blog in this very month:

  • How uses Chen’s (2007) social proof to help users narrow decisions
  • The anticipation and endowment effects (Huang & Chen, 20066) on eBay
  • Leveraging value to trigger dopamine on Zappos
  • Your brain wants a bargain (Welberg, 2007)… and Bluefly knows it!
  • Does an abundance of info on the iPhone App Store get in the way of online shoppers?
  • Primacy in lists (Kim & Fesenmeier, 2008)! What Best Buy needs to know about sorting on their catalogs
  • Time-harried shoppers: Designing websites for Satisficers vs. Maximizers

This is just a sample. We hope you’ll come back and check our posts our as we go….


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